NYC to mandate elementary schools use phonics-based curriculum

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New York City will require all elementary schools to adopt a phonics-based reading program in the coming school year.

The announcement came as part of a wider $7.4 million plan by Mayor Eric Adams to identify and support students with dyslexia or other reading challenges, including screening students from kindergarten through high school and creating targeted programs at 160 of the city’s 1,600 schools.

“We’re going to start using a proven, phonics-based literacy curriculum that’s proven to help children read,” Adams said at a press conference at Harlem’s P.S. 125.

“This is our opportunity to really move the needle on something that has been impactful for our children for a long time.”

City officials said teachers will be required to implement one of the education department’s recommended phonics-based curricula for kindergarten through second grade as part of the initiative. This shift is a major change in approach, as the department traditionally defers to principals on curriculum choice, with widely varying results.

Thursday’s announcement represents a significant victory for parents — some of whom wept at the press conference — who have long been frustrated with the city’s inability to educate many struggling readers.

Some families have sought outside evaluations, which can run thousands of dollars, and sued the city for private school tuition reimbursements, a process that often requires significant time and resources.

City officials are now vowing to better equip educators across the nation’s largest school system to serve students with reading challenges. They plan to launch programs specifically geared toward students with dyslexia at two elementary schools and provide deeper support for students at 80 additional elementary schools and 80 middle schools.

The efforts are intended to help address one of the city’s most entrenched problems: Just over half of students in grades 3-8 are not proficient readers, according to state tests. Profound learning disruptions caused by the pandemic have only amplified concerns that students have been knocked off track.

Adams often speaks about his own struggles with dyslexia and promised on the campaign trail to make it a priority. He framed the announcement Thursday as a “first-of-its-kind” effort and even as a bulwark against incarceration.

“Dyslexia holds back too many children in school, but most importantly in life,” Adams said.

“Dyslexia is not a disadvantage. It’s just a different way of learning. And all the children need — they need the tools to know how to comprehend information.”

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